‘Why would I put myself through this? Multiple times? For three months?’: James Norton on the A Little Life play and his Happy Valley return

‘There was a risk that if I’d just done “Grantchester” I’d have been known as the well-spoken floppy-haired guy’  (Getty)
‘There was a risk that if I’d just done “Grantchester” I’d have been known as the well-spoken floppy-haired guy’ (Getty)

Somewhere on the M1, between London and The North, a sleepy James Norton is sprawled out in the back of a car. It’s a very nice car, he tells me, with lots of leg room. The fields flanking the motorway are getting snowier as he travels up the country. The star of Happy Valleyand McMafia is wearing a “big, baggy tracksuit” and plans to have a “hefty snooze” after our interview, because he can’t stay awake on long drives. He laughs at my line of questioning – about his appearance and surroundings – telling me, “You’re going to twist this so it sounds like I’m the Queen of Sheba!”

There is a good reason why I’m asking the 37-year-old actor, in the least suggestive way possible, to describe where he is and what he’s wearing on the phone. He can’t meet in person or jump on Zoom. When we speak in mid-December, Norton is being driven – “very luxuriously” – to Halifax, where much of Happy Valley is filmed, for a local screening of season three. The drama returned to BBC One after a seven-year hiatus last weekend, and was quickly flooded with shimmering reviews. “No programme has had a greater influence in recent years,” wrote The Independent’s TV critic Nick Hilton, “than Sally Wainwright’s blistering Brontë-country barnstormer.”

When we rejoin the show, Norton’s monstrous villain Tommy Lee Royce is still behind bars, serving a life sentence for multiple murders. After years in the nick, he’s sporting Jesus hair and a gnarly forehead scar. Sarah Lancashire’s irreverent Sergeant Catherine Cawood, meanwhile, is counting down the months until she can retire and hang up her hi-vis police vest once and for all. Squelching through the mud in a Calder Valley quarry, she inspects a body buried in concrete. The killing is quickly linked back to Royce, who we discover has been transferred to a Sheffield prison, where he’s been having secret meetings with his son (and Cawood’s grandson) Ryan (Rhys Connah), and he is as chillingly childlike and playful as ever. “I’ve had a sandwich and a wee wee,” he wryly informs his concerned lawyer, as he’s called in for interrogation on the new case.

Norton is thrilled to be back. “I think the beauty of Sally and her writing is that she really, really f***s with the relationship you have with the characters,” he says, almost whispering the swear word. “She likes to make you think you’re dealing with a psychopath and then rip the rug out from under your feet, so that suddenly you’re feeling this sympathy for them and you can’t quite understand why.”

Wainwright is the only writer Norton knows who “makes you laugh just by describing a scene, before the dialogue’s even started”. “She’ll swear or put stuff in brackets,” he says, “so you’ll feel Sally rolling her eyes, or doing a little side-eye here, or a ‘For f***’s sake’ there.” The word is sweetly mumbled again.

Happy Valley’s first season, in 2014, was Norton’s breakout role. But he’d been working for a good few years before that, following training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London – his early roles included playing a classmate of Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education, a place in the original cast of Bullingdon Club parody Posh at the Royal Court, and a part as a young lawyer in the BBC One period drama Death Comes to Pemberley. But the world started to really take notice when bleach-blonde psychopath Royce arrived on the scene, and Norton was Bafta-nominated for his magnificent, menacing performance.

When the season one finale aired, in which Royce kidnapped his own son in a murder-suicide bid, Norton commented that “eight million people are currently wishing me dead”; his entry into the public consciousness was something of a baptism of fire. “But I’m quite grateful for the way it happened with me,” he says. “A lot of people, talking about baptisms of fire, could be landing a role as a teenager [Norton was 29 at the time]. Or look at the actor playing Wednesday Addams right now [Jenna Ortega]. Those baptisms of fire are nuts, because you miss so many rungs of the ladder, and suddenly you’re in this quite specific, lonely space. For me, Happy Valley was important, because it allowed me to show that I wanted to do transformative, challenging roles way away from my own life and personality... it came out when we were filming the first series of Grantchester, which was a role much more similar to me, and there was a risk that if I’d just done Grantchester I’d have been known as the well-spoken floppy-haired guy who can just do that.”

Norton rocking Jesus hair as Tommy Lee Royce in ‘Happy Valley’ (BBC)
Norton rocking Jesus hair as Tommy Lee Royce in ‘Happy Valley’ (BBC)

From 2014 to 2018, Norton played Grantchester’s gentle Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers, in his first starring role. You could say he was the original hot priest, before Andrew Scott’s in Fleabag. “Andrew and I are friends,” he says, laughing, “and I definitely told him how much I loved his hot priest, but there was no territorial claim to that space. I don’t think he returned the compliment, so perhaps he hasn’t watched mine. There’s room for many, many hot priests in this world, and I’m sure there’ll be many more in the future.”

After Grantchester and Happy Valley, the offers came in thick and fast. In 2016, Norton starred in the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror alongside Bryce Dallas Howard, and appeared as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, one of Harvey Weinstein’s last productions before his career was eclipsed by the #MeToo movement. “He visited the set once when I was there,” says Norton, “flew in for an hour, it was a handshake situation... but he was much more a suit in the office providing cash for the co-production. He didn’t have much creative contribution.”

Norton and Lily James in ‘War & Peace’, which was filmed in Russia (BBC)
Norton and Lily James in ‘War & Peace’, which was filmed in Russia (BBC)

Their paths crossed at screenings of the show later on. “My personal experience of Harvey Weinstein was fine,” he says. “He was bombastic and rude and blustery, all the things you expect from an old-fashioned Hollywood producer. I never witnessed any of the abuse, but I’d heard about it. And like a lot of actors, I was privy to the rumours and the reputation, and had moments of self-reflection, like ‘Why did no one do anything?’ They did, eventually, which is why we should be celebrating She Said. There were brave, brave women who did, thank God, bring about this massive punctuation mark in our history, but at the time it was all whispered about.”

War & Peace was filmed in Russia, and Norton has been following the country’s conflict with Ukraine closely. It’s a subject close to his heart, after he starred in Mr Jones, a film about the Holodomor, a man-made famine inflicted on Ukraine by the Soviet Union under Stalin, which killed millions in the 1930s. “The last time it was screened in Moscow,” he says, “there were masked gunmen who came and shut the screening down. And the authorities in Russia questioned the people who’d put the movie on, and not the gunmen. It was a state-sanctioned shutdown of the film.” He is still in touch with his Ukrainian translator from that project. “In the last messages I have from him, he’s asking for money to buy infrared goggles, so he can see Russian soldiers in order to shoot them. We shot that film in Ukraine, and these filmmakers and artists are now fighting. It’s the maddest thought. So, like everyone, I’ve felt this sense of helplessness. It really comes home when you see friends in bunkers asking for military aid.”

‘A Little Life’ is probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life

Norton has also led the cast of McMafia as the English-raised son of Russian mobsters, played boring-but-kind John Brooke in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and broken hearts as a single dad dying of brain cancer in the 2021 indie Nowhere Special. It might have been his empathetic performance in that film that caught the eye of Belgian theatre director Ivo Van Hove, who has cast him as Jude in his West End adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s traumatic 2015 bestseller, A Little Life. Jude is an extremely bright lawyer who experiences excruciating pain in his legs after a mystery spinal injury. He relentlessly self-harms and suffers from mental trauma – a result of the sexual abuse he was subjected to as a child. In The New Yorker, Parul Sehgal described Jude as “one of the most accursed characters to ever darken a page”.

The play will run at three hours and 40 minutes (slightly shorter than Van Hove’s 2018 Dutch version, which was four hours and 10 minutes), and, if it retains the structure of its predecessor, will feature a sink, centre-stage, that Jude cuts his wrists over. It will be a huge challenge for Norton, not least because he is type 1 diabetic and has to plan ahead for spending more than an hour at a time on stage. “Luckily there’s a full working kitchen on the set,” he says, “so we’ll have sugar and Lucozade in one of the cupboards, and I’ll have my insulin on a shelf.”

But the real mountain will be the subject matter. “It’s probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life,” says Norton. “I woke up and had moments like, ‘What am I doing voluntarily going into this place, this darkness?’ Hanya wanted to write a book about a protagonist who ultimately was not on the path to salvation, and there is no light at the end, and it was the antithesis to the American dream. And you do question that. ‘Why would I put myself through this? Multiple times? For three months?’ But it being this scary and terrifying prospect is the reason why you have to do it.”

‘A Little Life’ cast, from left to right: Zach Wyatt, Norton, Omari Douglas, Luke Thompson (Charlie Gray)
‘A Little Life’ cast, from left to right: Zach Wyatt, Norton, Omari Douglas, Luke Thompson (Charlie Gray)

Like Jude, Norton was raised by monks. He went to Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, nicknamed “the Catholic Eton”. An independent inquiry into child sexual abuse at the school published a highly critical report in August 2018, which said that “appalling sexual abuse [was] inflicted over decades on children as young as seven”. Ampleforth was banned from taking new pupils in November 2020. That ban was lifted in April 2021. Norton himself was not a victim of this abuse – in fact, he had a wonderful connection with one monk in particular, who helped him when he was bullied by fellow students. In A Little Life, Jude is taken in by a monastery as its only child ward and suffers horrendous sexual abuse. While their experiences differed hugely, Norton acknowledges the “obvious parallel”. “It’s the fact I went to a Catholic boarding school, where there was an inquiry into very sad and horrible things that were discovered and should not have happened,” he says, “and I didn’t have any experience of that when I was at that school. I had a complicated time, but it was nothing to do with the monks, and I found an enormous amount of support and solace from a couple of the monks, particularly this guy called Father Peter.

“So actually my experience is very different from Jude’s, apart from the fact that Ampleforth was a Catholic boarding school and it was a monastery, but it was a huge monastery and there were 550 boys as opposed to just one. But what I do share, which I think is my way in, and I think this is why the book is so loved and cherished, is that everyone knows what it is to feel trauma.”

Norton was badly bullied by classmates at Ampleforth. “When you experience things like bullying or abuse as a child, without the apparatus and maturity to contend with that and understand it, you internalise it and make yourself at fault,” he says. “And so there’s a lot of forgiveness that happened as an adult. That happened to me. I spent a long time hating the child that was bullied because I thought I’d brought the bullying onto myself. And that is a very small – and I’m not in any way comparing my experience to Jude’s, because it is a tiny sliver of what Jude experiences – but it is a way in for me. He is the most extreme example of someone who is full of goodness and warmth and yet is so full of self-loathing because of the way he is treated. And everyone can identify with that. Everyone knows what it’s like to look inside and go, ‘Oh God, I just f***ing hate myself right now.’”

When A Little Life was released, some criticised it for being trauma porn, arguing that the graphic depiction of Jude’s suffering was unnecessary. But, like many of the novel’s most ardent fans, Norton has found moments of exquisite lightness in the tale. “Everyone says this book is so dark, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s about heroic acts of friendship, and people gathering around someone who’s in need and desperately trying to help him to love himself. I hope my experience of doing this play will help me have a bit more self-love, too.”

Years after leaving Ampleforth, Norton has found that his name being constantly thrown around in the never-ending James Bond speculation serves as a satisfying riposte to his bullies. “I really hope the headline’s not gonna be about Bond,” he says, laughing, when I bring it up. “Ahh, that’s going to be the headline, isn’t it?” He concedes, though, that being part of that conversation is “amazing and nuts”. “There are people out there putting money on you to do that role; it’s like, ‘What?’” he says. “Talk about tapping into your childhood bullied self. That’s definitely a confidence boost to take back to the bullied 13-year-old and go, ‘Dude, you were in a conversation about who’s gonna play Bond.’”

‘Happy Valley’ continues at 9pm on Sunday nights on BBC One. ‘A Little Life’ will show at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre from 25 March to 18 June